We were camping on the banks of the Kankakee River and, after our little dinner of taco salad from Wendy’s because it was too wet to cook, we went for a walk. How fast summer comes on! Just last week I was wearing my Gore-tex against the cold and now I’m wearing it against the mosquitos. Patrushka was shooting and I was just pondering. In fact, I was so busy pondering that a beaver swam right by, took a bite of grass, and paddled on upstream. Never saw the old pig.
I was looking at some piers of yellow, hand-dressed stone rising out of the misting river, all eroded, with little bushes and trees digging their roots in for the duration. The river was also digging away — at the upsteam side of the foundations. It has already carved little tooth cavities at the waterline of each pier. Two more piers stand on either bank. I could see they were clogged and strangled with vines like a Mayan ruin in Quintana Roo. The bridge they once held up must have washed away or torn been down years ago.
Kinda gets a pig thinking. Each one of those stones was knocked into shape by a guy working hard all morning. Maybe all day. All that work, all that struggle and sweat to get those piers up across the river and now we don’t even know what the bridge was used for. Maybe some lady at the historical society knows. Was it a railroad bridge? Why did people way out here in the country want to cross the river so bad and what capitalist with what dreams of glory paid the navvys’ wages?
What’s the point? That’s what it comes down to. I know, they got paid for their work and that’s what matters. But still, all that work and now no one knows or cares. Why not just live out in the marshes and croak like a bullfrog?
When Patrushka starts feeling low she’ll wonder why she bothers to take all these photographs. They just go in a drawer. Just more stuff the kids will have to figure out what to do with when we’re gone.
“Look at your mother’s paintings”, she will say. “Nobody wants to hang them, but nobody’s willing to throw them away, either. So there they stand in their bubble-wrap, year after year, gathering dust in your brother’s garage.”
It is kind of depressing all right, but I tend to see the issue in another way. To me, these guys were dressing stones all day because they needed the money (of course), but maybe they enjoyed the work too. It was skilled labor, hard sweaty work with the other guys. Maybe they liked making those stones and maybe they got a kick out of seeing those piers going up in the river and knowing they were part of it.
Patrushka takes pictures and my mother painted pictures because it gives or gave them joy in the moment they were seeing the idea of it, then executing it with crazy brushstrokes and color mixing and aperture checking, then fiddling around in the darkroom or on the easel until it looked the way they wanted it.
I think of my Dad, Dwight Newton, the newspaper columnist. Certainly he had one of the world’s more trivial careers — if you take the galactic view. He wrote about television for the San Francisco Examiner every day including Sunday for 26 years (except he got to go on vacation – he was a union guy) and he had to get that damned column out no matter what and he reviewed every silly sitcom and corny western that came out each season and interviewed every flash in the pan, you never heard of him actor who starred for six episodes of Pigs On The Run before they cancelled it.
He gave them all the same attention, the same focus, then he rushed back to the office to type type type exactly the right number of inches to fill his space in time for the first edition.
I doupt if he ever groaned for a moment about all his columns gathering dust forever on library shelves and microfilm fiches because nobody remembers now who Tal Koolguy was or cares. Dad was having a great time and he had to get the column out and he took pride in getting the words just right. A nifty turn of phrase lightened his day considerable.
Did Ernest Hemingway have a better time than my Dad? Did Georgia O’Keefe have more fun than my Mom? Greatness is a gift from God and it’s no good to strive for it. Maybe a time does come when you have to say I’m going to change my life around so I can do my art, my craft, my skill, the thing I love to do, all day every day so I’ll…what?
For me, I’m just going to walk back to camp in the gloaming and sit by my tent and swat the mosquitos and wonder. Because that’s what I do – I’m the Pondering Pig.